Cllr Emily Barley is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Rotherham Council. She is a councillor for Hoober Ward.
In May 2021, after I was elected leader of a brand new group of Conservative Councillors in Rotherham, one of the first things I did was set up a small working group to assess the current situation regarding child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the Borough.
What we found was extremely worrying. In just a few short months, we discovered multiple examples of active grooming and other activities that indicated children are still being abused by organised gangs. Multiple members of the public talked about having seen suspicious things in a few key locations, and a picture emerged of Asian men buying children ice creams and mobile phones, and children getting into strangers’ cars at night in what looked like a network of pick-up locations. Through casework, we came across instances of children who were at risk, and possibly already being abused.
In each case, we reported everything we heard and found to South Yorkshire Police, and to Rotherham Council.
What happened next made the situation move from extremely worrying, to dire. In response to our reports, nothing happened. When we did get an acknowledgement of the information we had submitted, the tone of emails was hostile and the implication seemed to be that the authorities didn’t want to know. In the case of one at-risk child, it took three months of chasing around various people and departments at the council for anything to be done.
We went on to speak with survivors of historic child sexual exploitation, and then to professionals who support recent, and in some cases very young, survivors. When we heard stories from the past, then compared them to what we had seen and what recent survivors said in their statements, I was sickened.
By November, I felt it was time to go public with what we had found. Too many times in the past people in Rotherham have been pressured into remaining silent, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
I published a report summarising our findings, giving as much detail as I felt was safe to avoid identifying victims and damaging future police investigations.
The response from the public was dramatic and immediate: we received a flood of further information on suspicious activities and possible pick-up locations, some confirming what we had already heard from others, and some completely new. People shared stories of things they had seen, how they had likewise reported things to the police and been ignored, and more survivors came forward to tell us how they too had been failed by Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police.
The response from the authorities was different. We were accused of playing politics with the issue, supplying poor intelligence with the implication that we had wasted police time, and of not knowing what we were talking about. Chris Read, the Labour Leader of Rotherham Council, and Dr Alan Billings, the Labour South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, were both keen to say that they took child sexual exploitation seriously. They both were also anxious to say that grooming in Rotherham has changed, and it is now mostly done by white men, online.
In the Full Council meeting where we presented a motion calling for action on child sexual exploitation, Labour councillors took turns to deride our work, accuse us of ill-intent, and say that I personally had damaged confidence in the police. Again, we heard the claim that everyone in Rotherham takes child sexual exploitation seriously, but nevertheless we were wrong. Then, en-masse, the Labour group voted to amend our motion, taking out its teeth and deleting a passage that said: “While RMBC has performed well in Ofsted and other inspections, what matters is not that inspections are passed, but that children are protected from some of the most horrific crimes imaginable.”
To know the history of Rotherham – of dismissals and denials – and watch it happening again, was devastating.
Just a few weeks later, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published a report highlighting a number of continuing failings at South Yorkshire Police, including, among other things, the under-recording of crime against vulnerable children, the need for more training for specialist police officers, and failure to regularly update victims on their cases. The IOPC report quoted an expert who works with victims as saying that while things had improved in 2015-16, they had deteriorated since then.
The IOPC, not especially well-known for being critical of the police, said that they were “worried that despite multiple reports and recommendations, there are still areas of concern”.
Then, last week, The Times published details from South Yorkshire Police’s own internal report stating that in 67% of child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, the ethnicity of suspects is not recorded. The police report also said that Rotherham remains a hotspot for child sexual exploitation, and that fewer cases were being recorded possibly due to ‘competing demands’ to investigate other kinds of crime.
I know that the failings at South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Council to tackle child sexual exploitation go much further than the limited scope of these two reports suggest.
Still, today, frontline police officers and council staff are not adequately trained to recognise when a child is being groomed and possibly sexually exploited – instead, abused children are often still treated as troublemakers. We have heard from council staff who are terrified of losing their jobs if they speak out about what is going wrong – they have been told by their managers not to talk about child sexual exploitation.
Proactive work to identify possible victims and perpetrators is practically non-existent here, and South Yorkshire Police only prosecute in 1 in 34 child sexual exploitation cases, one of the worst rates in the country.
It’s simply not good enough. These poor attitudes and constant failings are not good enough anywhere, but they’re especially not good enough in Rotherham. Children are being groomed, raped, and trafficked, because the authorities in Rotherham are still not doing their jobs properly.
I and my team are going to keep working to change that.